I've seen the all-new Niro Hybrid, Kia's new dedicated HEV model, and while it didn't make a very good first impression with its design, it more than made up for that with well-sorted performance during my subsequent drive.
The hybrid utility vehicle
Before you get too excited, no, this is not the same scissor-doored, sharply styled Niro as. Only the name has been recycled for this small hybrid crossover.
The new Niro slots in between theand . It's identical in wheelbase to the Toyota Prius liftback (106 inches), but slightly shorter at 171 inches overall. The Niro also has the slightly elevated ride height of a tiny SUV, a more upright hatchback and a wider stance. Kia calls the Niro an HUV (hybrid utility vehicle), which sort of makes my eyes roll.
Presented in Plain Jane silver on a drab overcast morning at Kia's Namyang Design Center in South Korea, the Niro was finished with black cladding around its lower bumpers, rockers and wheel arches. This cladding is supposed to make the Niro look rugged and tough, but ultimately made it just look a bit cheap in my opinion. The crossover's rounded headlamps make it look a bit bulbous and doughy -- especially when parked next to the sharply styled Optima Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid models. On the other hand, the design may pop a bit more in a bolder color, and the understated design has its appeal when compared to the new (and over-designed) fourth-generation Prius.
1.6L hybrid powertrain
When you look past the form to the function, things start getting more interesting.
The Niro is powered by a 1.6-liter direct-injected "Kappa" gasoline engine. The Niro's mill is the largest displacement engine in Hyundai/Kia's Kappa series of three-bangers, making a nominal 103 horsepower and 108 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mated to a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT), but not directly.
The Niro uses Kia's TMED hybrid architecture (transmission mounted electric drive), sandwiching an e-motor between the engine and the transmission. The 32kW electric motor connects to the engine with a clutch and sends its 125 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels via a direct connected to the DCT. Kia says this setup affords a smoother transition between full-electric and hybrid operation modes and allows the Niro to use a conventional transmission rather than an eCVT like Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system.
Storing juice for the electric motor is a 42kW and 1.56kWh lithium polymer battery pack. Because Kia is still calibrating the hybrid system, it's not yet stating official economy numbers, but the automaker states that a target combined 50 mpg rating.
Driving the Niro
On the roads around Namyang, I was able to get behind the wheel of a camouflaged, preproduction Niro to get a feel for the hybrid utility vehicle.
Acceleration and power from the electrically assisted 1.6-liter feels much better than I'd anticipated. Kia couldn't (or wouldn't) state a total system output for the Niro's hybrid system, stating instead that it hasn't finalized the tuning of its hybrid system and would release a number closer to the production launch. My butt dyno estimates that the Niro's total torque is in the neighborhood of the Nissan Juke's 177 pound-feet, which nets the heavier HUV decent off-the-line pickup and passing power.
When cruising, the Niro is very quiet. Around town, the Niro's powertrain handles the electric-to-hybrid transition smoothly. The electric motor also seems to work well with the dual-clutch automatic transmission, shifting quickly and efficiently.
The chosen route around Namyang was generally well maintained, so my test didn't include tossing the suspension into any potholes or over very rough pavement. There was, however, an absurd number of speedbumps on the route. The Niro's ride felt well composed; soft, but not in a floaty way. The steering felt (dare I say?) sporty and direct.
Of course, I wasn't able to drive long enough to get a good idea of efficiency, and Kia is still working on the tuning, so the ride characteristic and hybrid powertrain performance could change by the time the Niro starts production next year. But if this preproduction example was any indicator, I'll be looking forward to spending more time with Kia's first dedicated hybrid next year.
Helping the powertrain towards its efficiency goals are a suite of eco technologies. An active air flap hidden in the grille opening closed at highway speeds to smooth the Niro's aerodynamics. And that's the simple part.
More advanced is the Niro's ECO-DAS driver aid software with predictive energy control. The system integrates with the navigation and GPS systems to make the most efficient use of hybrid powertrain based on chosen route's slope, curvature, and so on.
For example, ECO-DAS may be more liberal with using the battery's charge for electric assist leading up to an extended downhill segment, because it knows that it will be able to recoup the energy through regen. Alternatively, it can save up battery power to reduce the impact of increased emissions during an uphill passage. When approaching a navigation turn event, ECO-DAS can also suggest that a driver lift from the throttle and start coasting early, based on the current speed and the distance to the turn, saving energy that would be wasted by braking at the last minute. Kia says that this coasting coaching can net up to a 3 percent fuel economy boost.
Cabin and driver aid tech
In addition to efficiency tech, the Niro is also equipped with a respectable loadout of standard and optional infotainment and driver-aid tech, starting with a very trick looking instrument cluster that integrates digital and physical elements in a very attractive way.
Smartphone fans will appreciate an available wireless charging tray that Kia says is big enough to fit a Samsung Galaxy Note or an iPhone 6 Plus. While the phone is charging, Android users will be able to enjoy standard Android Auto screen mirroring and connectivity. Kia says that CarPlay connectivity for Apple phones is coming shortly after launch, which is weird because the current Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima already support both smartphone technologies.
In addition to Android Auto, the Niro will also support Kia's UVO suite of navigation, digital media and connectivity technologies.
Rear seat passengers will also have access to a 220V AC power outlet to charge their laptops or other devices on the go. Will no doubt be swapped with a 110-120V inverter when the Niro makes US landfall.
Available safety tech starts with a standard rear camera mounted high on the rear liftgate, just below the pivot point of the rear wiper. Kia says that it's the first manufacturer to put the camera here and that the high camera position will both keep the lens cleaner and afford a better view of the area behind the car.
The automaker also stated that the Niro would be available with autonomous emergency braking for its forward collision-warning system, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and a lane-departure warning system.
Looking further forward
Even with the ridiculous level of early access to the Niro, Kia was pretty guarded about many details. However, the company did let slip that a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version is being developed, possibly reaching the market once the HEV is settled. This PHEV variant would get a lighting upgrade, swapping the standard Bi-Xenon units with LED headlamps. Styling changes would include white wheel covers, "eco/plugin" emblems and "eco blue" color accents to the bumpers and body. Of course, there'd also be a plug-in port on the driver's front fender and a larger battery pack that would grant the Niro an extended electric-only driving mode. Beyond these details, Kia would not speak on estimated EV range or projected efficiency.
Kia's first dedicated hybrid model should debut to the public sometime in late 2016 as part of a larger green car five-year plan that includes the launch of hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the Optima sedan and culminates in the launch of a fuel cell vehicle by 2020. Closer to the Niro's production launch, we should have more information regarding price, specific efficiency and a timeframe for availability.
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